Disaster Preparedness: Culture of Expedience Will Fail in Disaster

Robert Mitchell, M.D.
Robert Mitchell, M.D.

Ever try to get a “gauge” on society at large? Ever ask yourself the question, “Given a set of circumstances, what will people do and why do they do it?”

As a disaster response planner and exercise designer, this is my mindset every waking minute. I spend countless hours (some close to me say way too many) just looking around and watching people. After all, in a catastrophic-level disaster, these are the very same people disaster plans are focused on, trying to salvage.

Since 2002 I have been studying all forms of crisis response from NYC and D.C. on 9/11 to mass evacuations due to hurricanes like Charlie, Katrina and Sandy to Three Mile Island to the Titanic and the Costa Concordia to the 2004 Indonesia tsunami devastation and 2010 Haiti relief efforts to the 1937 Hindenburg to the 1947 fertilizer ship explosions in Texas City to the Boston bombing at the Marathon to the 1947 NYC mass smallpox vaccination campaign with subsequent administering of 5+ million vaccinations to Rhode Island’s 2003 Station nightclub fire to the recent mudslide near Oso and Darrington; right up through the ongoing Ebola crisis. One cultural or human characteristic on display at one point or another throughout all of them is expedience. In other words, what’s best for me?

Don’t misunderstand. That’s not always a bad thing. Survival instinct is a powerful driving force as it should be. But, as a planner, I must factor that force into every disaster response plan; anticipation of this behavior makes even the best planning complex.

There are two permeating threads or themes in the emergency services and disaster response planning “communities”. In a catastrophic-level emergency, 1) Try to focus on accomplishing the greatest good for the greatest number. 2) If it’s not done every day, it won’t be done in a disaster. These apply to the Fire/EMS and Police services as well as hospitals, but perhaps as importantly to all of us as we go about our busy lives.
As you drive along I-5, you really get a glimpse or snapshot of humanity as cars deliberately dart in and out of slower-moving, speed-limit abiding traffic, often at grossly excessive and unnecessary speeds. Also seen are many on cell phones talking or texting away at 60 or 70 mph. All of them must know they are “breaking laws”. This is not rocket science. Yet, all believe it’s just fine to do so as long as they are not caught, or, God forbid, injured.

I get this. I too at times may have slightly exceeded the speed limit when “running late” and may be guilty on occasion of reading texts while waiting endlessly at a traffic light (I know, I know—). This “everyday behavior” is what I refer to as expedience; as long as it benefits me, I don’t really care how it may affect others, the larger group of us.

These “violators” do not take into account this behavior could lead to accidents or fatalities; or that certain laws are in place to help prevent such related events. These laws are intended for the “greater good”. They are not expected to take into account or exception that you or I are “running late.”

Ask any judge.

For any disaster response to be successful and save countless lives, there must occur a confluence of human behavior and it will need to be self-induced. Our limited numbers of police and fire services will be otherwise urgently engaged in directly saving lives. This individual behavior pattern will not be easy to adopt as it may confront one’s survival instinct and need for expediency. Cooperation, following directions and laws however minor or irrelevant they may seem, and a general understanding and acceptance that what is being advised is for the “greater good” (which includes you and me) will be necessary.

As this is not “everyday behavior” for some, it will not be an easy task. I ask only that all of us consider these thoughts as we go about our daily routines. It may not only save your life, but the lives of many may depend on how you behave and what you choose to do in a crisis.

– By Robert Mitchell, M.D.

Robert Mitchell, M.D., is an Edmonds resident for 30 years, board certified in OB/GYN, practicing at Stevens/Swedish-Edmonds for 18 years, retired from active OB/GYN practice in 2002. He is a crisis response trainer devoted to hospital emergency preparedness.

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